Psychotherapy in the Outdoors

by Peter Devlin

“I come into the peace of wild things
Who do not tax their lives with forethought
Of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars Waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free”.

Wendell Berry (2008)

Introduction

As I write this article, I am seated on a large flat stone in a little rhododendron bordered garden on the slopes of Benbulben in County Sligo. It is one of my outdoor ‘offices’ where I see clients for outdoor therapy. Towering about five hundred yards behind me is the mountain. From this vantage point I sense its power and majesty. The wind blows gently but with its distinctive sea-rhythm sound as it sways the branches in the nearby small forest. The sky is a mixture of blue and grey. Lambs bleat for their mothers, and the rushes stand proud having survived the winter and the wintry spring. The grass is surprisingly green in this sheltered spot, unlike the brown of my own garden. The mountain top gazes down on me in a disinterested fashion.

Recently I was interviewed by an M.A. student who was researching his thesis on outdoor therapy. Until then I was only aware of two other therapists who work in a similar way to me. It was encouraging and satisfying to realise that there were other therapists in Ireland who were working outdoors. So why am I putting pen to paper now? I do so in an effort to understand my work backwards and to increase the body of literature on this topic and in particular to write from an Irish perspective. I write also to support those who work in outdoor spaces quietly and to encourage those who may have thought about such work but as yet have not taken the first step.

In this article I will describe how I began to work outdoors, explore some of the benefits of the practice and outline some considerations that need to be borne in mind when working outdoors. In this way I hope to address questions such as why, on earth any therapist or client would want to do psychotherapy outdoors? What might be the fruit of working outdoors rather than indoors? Might nature have a role in the healing and empowerment of humans? What are the issues relating to boundaries and safety when one moves from the therapy room to the outdoor ‘room’? Does a potential outdoor therapist need any particular skills or gifts?

Making Sense of What Comes Naturally

A few months ago, I asked my six-year-old son if he would like to bring in some turf. “Why would I want to do that?” was his response. So I needed to explore with him the ‘why’. So why would anyone want to be a client or therapist working outdoors?

I grew up on a farm; the landscape was a place of familiarity and work. When I moved away and became landless, outdoors became a place to relax and be. As I began to work with young people, I recognised that half the work was done by simply bringing them to a centre which was located on the shores of Carlingford Lough. Once they were there the landscape did the rest of the work. The experience of climbing Sliabh Si could not be improved upon. Since then, I have been affirmed in my view by the writings of Richard Louv (2005) who suggested that if human beings are not immersed in the natural environment, they experience deprivation.

To spend time on my own in silence and stillness on the mountains or by the sea made being in the outdoors much more nourishing for me than the doing of working, walking or climbing.

On Becoming a Therapist Who Works Outdoors

When I qualified as a psychotherapist in 2000, it was inevitable that I would go outside for healing and renewal. The question began to surface as to why I would bring someone inside, away from everything natural, to effect healing. It seemed strange. Four concrete walls, a roof, a carpet, a window – as opposed to fresh air, grass, hedges, trees, streams and sky with their very different energy.

I attended Ecotherapy training in Knoydart, Scotland, in October 2007 which was jointly presented by David Key and Mary-Jane Rust. This was an extraordinarily formative experience which included a ten-hour period of fasting and sitting on my own in the one place.

On returning from the course, I knew I wanted to move outdoors for my own therapy, and I was fortunate to acquire a therapist who was very open to this. We had an agreed meeting place beside a particular tree overlooking Benwiskin mountain. We also agreed that either of us could text or call on that day to move the venue back to the office depending on health or weather.

I had many powerful healing experiences with that non-intrusive and empathic therapist in that setting. Working with dreams facilitated me to uncover deeply buried anger and fear. Trees spoke to me in sessions, often the dull sky harmonised with my greyness and depression. Sometimes with agreement, we moved venue for a particular reason to somewhere else which might enhance my process. One I remember in particular was changing to sit by a small river flowing under a bridge near the cave of Diarmuid and Grainne on the famous Benwiskin Horseshoe drive. This remains a very spiritual and empowering place for me. God and the mountain became one in me as a shiver went up my spine.

Currently, I work with another therapist who has an extensive garden around his house. This setting provides trees, bushes and bog, all of which facilitate my work. The personal process is continually witnessed by Truskmore Mountain.

Beginning my Outdoor Work with Clients

Inviting a client outdoors initially came very naturally. I began by chatting with one client who had a natural affinity with the outdoors, about the possibility of us moving outside. She had participated in an outdoor workshop which I had offered and therefore trusted me as someone who had experience of working outside. This made it easier for her to agree and to take the risk. After the initial session we spent time indoors reflecting on the experience and it became obvious to both of us that working in such a way was enriching and liberating for her.

We continued to work using a pre-arranged meeting point for our sessions. Each session generally followed a set pattern, including a walk from the meeting point to the ‘office’ in silence, whereupon we would take up our respective ‘seats’. The client would begin as if inside. The difference was that noise and the wildness of the natural environment encouraged her freedom of expression in a way that would not have been as possible indoors.

The natural environment also provided us with a wide choice of creative therapeutic tools. Bristling thistles helped mirror her anger; the rushes contradicted her sense of futility by announcing their rightful place in the scheme of things. The rocks sometimes became the focus for and the witness of her emerging self as she assured them of her place in the world.

Since then I have continued to develop my outdoor practice. I tell people in the initial meeting that I do therapy outside as well as in the office and explain something of what that means. I explain to them that I have three main venues outdoors which I use, but assure them of there being other possibilities. During assessment or during on-going work, I carry the knowledge in my head about how my local environment may facilitate the therapeutic process. For example, the mountains can be a great place to work on empowerment, finding one’s voice or releasing the wild person within. The bog can have great empathy with a person’s depression. Trees and forest can be places which lend themselves particularly to grief therapy and family of origin work. Sea and sand can be a place for working on anxiety and for encouraging play in our lives.

Benefits of This Approach

Working outdoors offers a number of therapeutic benefits and supports. For example, when working outdoors, nature itself can become an extra therapist, thus becoming an ally in the healing process. The freedom and isolation of places outside are conducive to going deep. For example, if you are self-conscious sitting in a room fearing that you might be heard, or the smallness of the room feels like an impediment, the outdoors can be empowering and a ‘breath of fresh air’. In my experience, it is true to say that some clients are just more at home outdoors – in fact they have said often so.

Wild nature can be cruel in not always providing shelter. As we cannot control it, we learn its vacillations. It can be challenging, insensitive, dismissive, but that is the reality of life. How do we cope with an unexpected shower of rain, frightening gales, the intense cold? In the outdoors even the weather can be an advantage as we are invited into the here and now.

Clients can see their therapist from a different place. As they give up the comfort of their seat in the office, they lose their ‘professional smugness’ and become as vulnerable as the client to the elements. When this is processed in a further session there can be great learning and a levelling of the relationship can occur. In so doing, there is a lessening of the intensity of projections of ‘greatness’ into the therapist and a new limit is set to the counter-transference. In fact this levelling of relationship is highlighted by Jordan and Marshall (2010:350) when they refer to outdoor work as bringing a greater element of democracy into the process.

Finally, nature is a very powerful container and sponge. It has huge energy. As a therapist, I often feel much less tired or depleted after an outdoor session.

Some Considerations when Working Outdoors

There are considerations that need to be taken into account when working outdoors with clients. In the first place, having easy access to a suitable site(s) and respect for the weather are essential elements of the practice. The overall physical health and fitness of both client and therapist needs to be factored into the decision to work outdoors. It is important that the therapist and client work together to ensure that the client is not simply acquiescing to the choice, but rather has a real and genuine desire to work outdoors. There are practical boundary issues involved in working outdoors. As therapist, I am responsible for managing the session in terms of punctuality and confidentiality. Finally, in relation to duty of care and ethical practice, one’s insurance company needs to extend the therapist insurance to cover outdoor work.

Any therapist wishing to work outdoors probably needs above anything else to be feel comfortable in the outdoors, feeling as at home sitting on a stone or a clump of grass as on a chair in an office setting. They also need to have the confidence to handle unexpected events or intrusions and have a care and respect for the earth. Finally, it is also wise for any therapist wishing to work outdoors with clients to have some experience of what it is like to be a client outside.

Conclusion

My son now brings in the turf daily and is happy to do so. He just needed the invitation, some reasons and encouragement. The therapeutic aspect of nature is one which many of us experience on an informal basis when we walk on the beach or breathe in fresh mountain air; but in my experience as both client and therapist, its therapeutic potential goes far beyond this. I hope I have planted a seed in writing this article, and that it may encourage other therapists to consider trying what has been for me and some of my clients a life-giving practice.

Peter Devlin MA, MIAHIP is an accredited practising psychotherapist and supervisor in North Sligo who offers regular outdoor retreats and training.

References:

Berry, W. (2008) The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry. Berkeley CA: Counterpoint. Jordan, M and Marshall, H. (2010) ‘Taking Counselling and Psychotherapy Outside:

Destruction or Enrichment of the Therapeutic Frame?’ in European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling. 12: 4, 345-359.
Louv, R. (2005) Last Child in the Woods. Chapel Hill NC: Algonquin.

Further Reading:

Abram, D. (1996) The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Vintage.
Bergerm D. (2009) Nature Therapy: Developing a Framework for Practice. PhD thesis. Retrieved 19 January from <http://www.naturetherapy.org>.
Buzzell, L. and Chalquist, C. (2009) Ecotherapy. San Francisco: Sierra Club. Foster, S. and Little, M. (1998) The Four Shields: The Initiatory Seasons of Human Nature. CA: Lost Borders.
Santostefano, S. (2004) Child Therapy in the Great Outdoors – A Relational View, New Jersey: Analytic.